This is the first in a series of 25 guides that are companion pieces to our lecture series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C. These guides are for the purpose of enriching your viewing experience—you’ll be able to view virtual tours of locations, participate in polls, take fun quizzes, and easily access online resources that provide all the information you will need for an incredible journey to our nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C. We recommend that you download the series before traveling any further!
An Overview of the Guides in this Series
We will begin with the story of how Washington, D.C. became the nation’s capital and include a look at the heart of the city, the National Mall. Next, we look at the famous federal buildings surrounding that area: the White House, Capitol, and Supreme Court, as well as the institutions that support them, like the Library of Congress and the executive departments. After that, we turn to war memorials on the National Mall.
From these memorials, we’ll move across the Potomac River to Arlington, Virginia, and visits two very different types of memorial: Arlington National Cemetery and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. Next, comes a quick trip south to Old Town Alexandria and then to George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon for a look at how America’s first president lived and worked in this region. Returning to Washington, D.C. proper, we’ll consider the life of another president—Abraham Lincoln—and the places most associated with his presidency, including Ford’s Theatre, the scene of his tragic assassination and death in the wake of the American Civil War.
From the story of Lincoln, we move to the story of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and the landmarks of the civil rights movement that followed the Civil War. We also return to the National Mall for a look at one of Smithsonian’s newest museums, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Following that is a look at another monument to the struggle for human rights: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We complete our tour of the National Mall and the federal core of the city with a visit to the rest of Smithsonian’s museums on and around the mall, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery, and many others.
After visiting the museums and their celebration of American history and culture, we then turn to the darker side of Washington history and look at several of the city’s infamous scandals, including the Watergate scandal. Pivoting back to the city’s finer moments, the next guide explores some of the city’s historic performing arts institutions, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
After that, we move out of federal Washington and into its neighborhoods, including Embassy Row, Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, and Georgetown. We will also visit some of Washington’s most famous houses and gardens. We’ll then consider the spiritual life of Washingtonians with a visit to its most important religious institutions, including the Washington National Cathedral.
Discover Famous and Off-the-Beaten-Track Attractions
Up next is a visit to some of Washington’s most famous residents: the giant pandas and the other rare animals at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. The guide looks at the animals themselves, the important research by the zoo’s scientists, and the zoo’s fascinating interactive exhibits and events.
Following that, we embark on a whirlwind tour of Washington’s unique and award‑winning dining scene. From local seafood and soul food to international cuisines and historic institutions, the city holds a flavor for every palate.
We’ll then turn to a tour of Washington, D.C.’s newest neighborhoods: National Harbor and the city’s waterfront, where locals shop, dine, and play. We also visit three of the most popular venues on D.C.’s waterfront: its sports arenas, with a look at the past and present of baseball, football, soccer, and other sports in D.C.
One of the most surprising aspects of life in Washington for many visitors is how close the city is to the wilderness. We will highlight Washington’s wild spaces—its rivers, parks, and forests— where you can get a breath of fresh air, with a side of history by visiting historic canals, Civil War forts, 19th‑century farms, and more.
Finally, we wrap up with a trip to the National Archives and look at America’s founding documents. The concluding guide considers how the city reflects the promise of the founding fathers, how far it has come, and how far it has to go.
About Richard Kurin
Richard Kurin is the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador‑ at‑Large, the first person in the history of the Smithsonian Institution to hold that title.
He received his B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo, and he earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from The University of Chicago.
During his graduate studies, Dr. Kurin was awarded a Fulbright‑Hays Doctoral Dissertation fellowship and a Social Science Research Council fellowship.
As a member of the Smithsonian’s senior leadership team, Dr. Kurin helps guide the institution’s national museums, preeminent research centers, and educational programs. His areas of focus are the Smithsonian’s strategic direction, institutional partnerships, public representation, philanthropic support, and special initiatives.